White Skin

Reporter: Bryan Seymour

Sydney woman, "Rosa" is one victim of skin whitening - but there will be more. Dermatologist Dr. Adrian Lim tries to patch up the pieces when patients decide they need to look whiter. "There's absolutely no need for the skin whitening industry to exist", Dr. Lim said.

Products promising to make you white have been around for centuries but in the last few years, the big pharmaceutical companies have tapped into the frenzy to become fairer. Skin whitening is now a ten billion dollar business in Japan, India and China combined.

When I walked into a convenience store in Beijing, the entire first racks were stacked with their biggest seller-- skin whitening products containing a cocktail of chemicals. "Traditionally mercury has been used, that's quite an effective nerve toxin. Unfortunately patients tend to end up with mercury madness --amongst other problems. Then there are lead based cosmetics, leading to lead poisoning", Dr. Lim said.

Here are some of the chemicals you'll find in skin whitening products:

Ascorbic acid


Azealic acid

Acelaic acid

Retanoic acid






Mulberry extract

Bearberry extract


Licorice extract

Lead oxide

Lemon juice extract

Emblica powder

Kojic acid

Lactic acid


Potions can be homemade, bought on the internet or from your local Aussie pharmacy -- including half a dozen creams containing a chemical called Hydroquinone. "The trouble with Hydroquinone is that if it's used unsupervised for prolonged periods, it can lead to worsening of the pigmentation", Dr. Lim said. Banned in Japan, France, South Africa and host of other countries, Hydroquinone was described by a pair of Dutch researchers as a "time bomb ... a chemical catastrophe set to sweep the globe."

It's been linked to leukemia and organ damage. In Australia, it's classified as a schedule 4 poison which means you can buy creams with up to 4% hydroquinone over the counter: for anything more potent, you will need a prescription. Dr. Lim said, in "Rosa's" case, "Within twelve hours, overnight, she woke up with significant swelling, scabbing that has resulted in permanent scarring and post-inflamatory darkening of her face -- in other words she looks much worse from when she started".

"Rosa's" friend gave her an unlabelled compound from Thailand and Dr Lim thinks glycolic acid was the ingredient that left the scars "Rosa" now sees in the mirror. Regardless of what's in them, skin whitening creams are here to stay, because so many people on this planet believe for the best chance for success, wealth and love, is to be white. An ad in India for a cream called Fair and Lovely -- made by Unilever -- shows the girl using the cream to become white - she then gets the job, becomes a star and gets the guy.

There are dozens of ads just like it all throughout Asia. . In another, a dark Indian stuntman first becomes white -- then becomes the leading man. "Some people say they're colonizing women's faces", said Dianna Sweeney, who wrote her PHD thesis on the skin whitening industry. In a past life she was the Schwarzkopf Girl and magazine cover model -- the perfect blonde model, the ideal woman. "Look at people like Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman in Australia, they're held up as iconic women and they are whiter than white, whereas Elle MacPherson is tanned/healthy -- tanned and healthy get put together here", Ms. Sweeney said.

That's the real head scratcher -- while millions of darker skinned people want to be whiter, here, white Australians worship a tan -- to a point. "We love people like Cathy Freeman, and yet Cathy Freeman's not advertising a whole lot of everyday products in Australia -- there are other sports women that are", Ms. Sweeney said.

Dr Lim says he's happy in his own skin, yet, skin whitening happens even in his family. "My mother for example you know, she's a typical Asian woman who seeks fairer and whiter skin and bleaching is a regular part of her skin care routine", he said.

Perhaps the desires fueling the whitening industry are skin deep, perhaps a reflection of nature's way, or even natural selection? "Is Michael Jackson nature's way. It doesn't look like nature to me", said Ms. Sweeney.


Indian Television ads for "Fair & Lovely":







Other skin whitening commercials:





Read more about the Skin Whitening Industry at: